This article first appeared in HuffPost’s Impact section
The locked metal cabinet doesn’t look amiss in Sarah Helms’ sixth grade classroom, with its bright yellow walls and green plastic stationery caddies. But rather than pencils, pens or binder paper, its shelves hold bottles of shampoo and body wash, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, cotton swabs, sanitary pads and tampons.
For the past three school years, Helms, an English teacher at Horace Maynard Middle School in Maynardville, Tennessee, has stocked a “hygiene closet” with personal care items donated for students from low-income families by fellow teachers, current and former Horace Maynard parents, and members of the community. Helms uses cash donations to buy supplies at the dollar store. Her parents gave her the cabinet.
“I noticed certain kids being picked on for not being well groomed, and I felt that many children were just too shy to go to an adult and ask for help with the items they needed,” Helms told HuffPost. She could see how it eroded their self-esteem when their classmates commented on their appearance or body odor.
Once a month, Helms pulls toothpaste, tampons and other toiletries — including “random donations,” such as hairbrushes, combs, body spray and lip balm — from the hygiene cabinet and packs them into plastic grocery bags for 14 girls and 17 boys.
“A huge blessing” is how one Horace Maynard parent I contacted described the hygiene closet at her son’s school. Helms reached out to this single mom (she asked to remain anonymous) at the start of the school year to see whether her son would be interested in receiving a hygiene pack. She said yes. Her son’s monthly bag includes shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, razors and cologne.
Closet program increase highlights poverty gap
Horace Maynard’s hygiene closet is just one of the thousands of similar programs in public elementary, middle and high schools across the U.S., according to data from DonorsChoose.org, an online giving platform where public school teachers can ask for funds for their classroom needs. The site has seen requests for hygiene and personal care products mushroom, from just one in 2002 to 1,789 last year. Nearly two-thirds of requests come from schools in urban areas, and they are particularly common among schools where three-quarters of students or more are from low-income households.
Over a third of pupils at Horace Maynard are eligible to receive a free or reduced-priced lunch, and some benefit from the school district’s donation-supplied food program, which provides students a weekly bag of groceries to take home to their families.
Helms sends her students home with hygiene bags the Friday before the end of the month. “This is usually when items are needed most because those families who are on food stamps are low on money for other things like hygiene items,” she explained.
The government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) provide state-level monthly help to low-income households in the form of a pre-loaded card to purchase vegetables, fruit, dairy and pantry items. Recipients cannot, however, use the cards to purchase non-food items, including toiletries and sanitary products.
Lisa Greenig, a teacher at Fairfield Middle School in southeast Iowa, said the idea for her school’s hygiene closet came about after a discussion with fellow teachers about SNAP restrictions. “Hygiene items can be expensive. Considering 50% of our students live under federal poverty guidelines, I decided to go public with the idea,” she said. “The community embraced the idea and has been very generous to help stock the closet,” which the school started in January.
So far, about 24 families have signed up ― parents and guardians of students just have to complete a registration form to receive items from the hygiene closet. “We did not want to risk offending anyone by offering a bag of products without them submitting a request,” Greenig said. “At no time do we want families to feel embarrassed about using the closet.”
Greenig hopes more families, often reluctant to ask for help, will access the program once they realize how private distribution is. “Re-orders typically come through email directly to me. I pack a bag and quietly place the items in the student’s locker. Refills fit in student backpacks so they can be carried home.” With support from local businesses, such at the Hy-Vee grocery store, and backing from school Superintendent Laurie Noll and school board member Jennifer Anderson, Greenig says the district has plans to expand the program to the high school and two elementary schools.
School attendance and self esteem at risk
Other programs are a direct response to changing family circumstances, such as homelessness. “We’ve had an increase in families losing their housing, doubled or even tripled up in a household,” said Stephanie Martinez, program director of student services for the Jefferson Elementary School District in California’s Bay Area. “It’s been pretty drastic and very challenging [for students] if they’ve lost their housing or have a long commute into school.” Martinez is planning a hygiene pack program for the new school year to help students from the 100-plus families in the district living in transitional housing or shelters.
Lack of access to hygiene products can have a negative effect on the lives of children and teens, said Aleta Angelosante, a child psychologist at the Child Study Center at New York University’s Langone Health: “If you are outwardly having difficulties with hygiene, it can certainly lead to at best being more neglected or ignored, at worst being pointed out and bullied in some way.”
North Carolina nonprofit BackPack Beginnings set up a personal care pantry in its Greensboro headquarters about 18 months ago to help schools in Guilford County provide products to students.“We have heard stories concerning the way it impacts self-esteem and the fact that some are skipping school because they are embarrassed by their own hygiene,” said BPB Executive Director Parker White.
Nearly 1 in 5 girls in the U.S., for example, have either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to sanitary products. “Many have heard of teachers buying food for their students, but fewer people hear about them buying hygiene products. Our teachers are underpaid as is, and we want to take this burden off their plate.”
According to a survey of teachers who use DonorsChoose.org to make funding requests, 84% in the highest poverty schools have purchased essentials such as hygiene products for their students. Of those, 63% report spending more than $100 per year on these items.
Parker said about two dozen schools currently access the BPB pantry program, helping hundreds of students across the district.
Fighting for hygiene equity in schools
While programs led and funded by nonprofits and teachers are to be celebrated, hygiene equity campaigners say this issue calls for state intervention. Most hygiene items are taxed under state laws; some, such as dandruff shampoo and chapstick, are not. Some progress has been made around access to sanitary products and several states, including Nevada and Florida, have removed the so-called “tampon tax.” California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is unveiling a budget plan this week that would drop sales taxes on menstrual products.
But as long as government programs such as SNAP continue to put toothpaste and tampons on the same list of prohibited purchases as tobacco and beer, teachers, parents and local communities will likely still provide such items for low-income students.
Helms said the hygiene closet program had show her just how much of a lifeline this and other assistance schemes are for many students in her community. As the Horace Maynard mother I spoke to told me, “The closet at my son’s school has helped us tremendously. The products that are sent home are used by all my kids. It’s really a very thoughtful thing to do to help make sure the kids feel loved. I would tell everyone that has donated thank you. A million times over, thank you.”